The following is a distilled version of Naramura-san's talk at GDC 2013, accompanied by his own hand-drawn slides from the presentation. Naramura-san’s presentation starts with a very interesting slide.
After Phil Fish's harsh criticism of Japanese gaming last year, Naramura decided to try and address it himself. The answer he came up was perhaps not what others expected: "Well said."
According to Naramura himself, no one from the Japanese development community had bothered to respond to Fish's comments, so he took it upon himself to take a crack at it. Naramura began by introducing NIGORO.
He then went on to talking about the history of NIGORO, the origin of the name (NIGORO = 256), and their love for old school games that fueled their passion to make games themselves. Naramura recounted that it was the positive response to the original La-Mulana both inside and outside of Japan that spurred them on to pursue game development seriously.
Naramura then went on to talk about the games they've developed since they first formed, including Mekuri Master, Rose & Camellia, and of course, La-Mulana.
Naramura continued on, saying that their free Flash games helped them build a reputation, giving them the opportunity to seriously think about the prospect of releasing games as digital downloads. It's that this point that Naramura switched gears so that he could give the audience some background on the indie gaming scene in Japan.
Naramura compared the reception of indie games in the West to that of the attention of indie games in Japan. While western indie games have enjoyed quite a lot of attention, Japanese indie games tend to be ignored in their home country.
While there are plenty of indie development groups in Japan, the community fragmented into tiny groups before a scene could ever develop, making community difficult, and learning from each other near impossible.
Doujin game makers, flash game makers, smartphone game makers and free game makers, despite all being indie by definition, have very little in common with each other.
Furthermore, many indie developers have given ideas to larger companies that have then released it under their own name, robbing these small developers of any possible recognition. Naramura says that it might be possible for Japanese indie games to become a strong force if developers worked together to build a strong community, but this sadly isn't the case, and they mostly do not associate with each other.
The best part of this section of the lecture was the Voltron imagery, which illustrates so well what is so difficult about building an indie gaming scene.
Naramura then went on to talk about the cultural differences in approaching video game development between Japan and the West, namely the idea of stability in Japan, versus the pioneering spirit of the West. It's this yearning for stability, Naramura said, that hurts the indie development scene in Japan, but when they attempted to release their game abroad, they hit a wall.
The language barrier for many Japanese developers made it difficult to connect with their community, and legal paperwork and issues made the entire process longer than actual development. This is where we came in. Playism offered localization for NIGORO's work, and handled the communication with distribution platforms in English, in a way NIGORO was not able to do.
Naramura talked about how he can understand how breaking into the western gaming market (namely on Steam) can be a daunting, and perhaps impossible task for many Japanese indie developers. He also commented on the fact that all of the Japanese games that have appeared on Steam have been either picked up by western publishers, or were published by their own western branch.
It's about this time that he gets into the nitty gritty of La-Mulana. The most interesting portion of this is how they engaged their community. Naramura talked about the fact that if they went silent about the content of the La-Mulana remake, fans would either wonder what they were working on, or even forget they still existed.
The NIGORO team decided to be as open as possible. They let the community in on the process, showing art, taking surveys on what assets to use, and giving glimpses of remade bosses. When there was too much content to put into the game, while many directors would make an executive decision on what to cut, NIGORO decided instead to mine ideas and opinions from the La-Mulana community.
In the case of one specific boss encounter in the original game, gamers had commented that the fight would have been more enjoyable had the platform above the boss wasn't there at all. Naramura took this to heart, and changed the encounter in a way that was unexpected to players.
Throughout this entire process, video sharing and streaming sites were a major tool. Youtube, and Japan's Nico Nico Douga were great ways for the team to watch players traverse the original game, and see how they reacted to specific traps and situations. This allowed the team to change certain aspects to trick veteran players, or tune specific sections that seemed unfairly difficult.
Naramura also revealed that he quite enjoys watching playthroughs of the game online, and actually gets a sick joy out of watching players die over and over again. He's the game creator that loves to torture you.